Volume 19 No. 1
by Allen Pursell
by Allen Pursell
Woodland mammals are particularly fond of the night, but few are seemingly so well adapted to the nightlife as the raccoon. They are found in almost every woodlot, forest, and suburb. So common in fact it is difficult to believe they once nearly disappeared from Indiana.
The trade in raccoon furs extends its reach back in time to when all this land was French territory. Later as settlers arrived and began clearing the land they brought a tradition of trapping and dog hunting with them. By the early twentieth century, especially during the 1920s raccoon fur coats and jackets had become the fashion rage. Strong demand for furs led to an intense pursuit of the animal. By the 1930s, raccoons had become truly scarce in Indiana. Coon hunting clubs took it upon themselves to import raccoons from other areas of the country, and went so far as to establish captive breeding and release programs. Their efforts were of course successful and raccoons spread widely during the 1940s, stabilizing during the 1950s but at a level far less than that of today.
Beginning in the 1950s staff of what was then known as the Department of Conservation began collecting data on the trade in raccoon pelts. One of the findings of this long-term study is while hunting and trapping are often thought of as recreational pursuits, the market for furs actually drives the number of raccoons taken by hunters and trappers (Figures 1 and 2). For instance, around 1970 raccoon fur prices entered a bull market with steep rises in price and a corresponding increase in fur harvesting. Pelt prices increased dramatically over the course of several years from less than $5 to nearly $25 each. But as with so many markets this euphoria was followed by an equally extended bear market. Fur prices began to decline and by 1990 had fallen to their pre-1970 price.
Tremendously adaptable raccoons took advantage of the decline in harvesting and growth of suburban sprawl during the 1990s. In short, their populations exploded. They have grown so numerous some wildlife biologists now believe they may have saturated their habitat and reached the full capacity of the environment to sustain them. The impact of so many raccoons has been noticeable, especially in agriculture
Raccoons are especially ravenous consumers of corn. According to Professor Gene Rhodes at Purdue University, recent studies have shown that 87% of damage to field corn can be attributed to raccoons. Deer account for only about 10%. Raccoons are also well known for taxing sweet corn in many a garden, and bird feeders are viewed by them with pleasure.
Being omnivores raccoons feed on a variety of both plants and animals, including songbird eggs. There is a curious correlation between the large rise in raccoon numbers beginning about 1980 and a simultaneous decline in ground nesting and shrub nesting songbirds across the eastern United States, although no connection between the two has ever been firmly established.
Besides an increase in raccoons other factors could be responsible as well, including loss of habitat for grassland and shrub-loving birds, land use changes, and other animals. Housecats are known to kill millions of songbirds nationwide each year. Of course raccoons are native and necessary inhabitants of the forest. While they are attractive animals and a pleasure to watch they are best left alone. Wildlife biologists with the Indiana DNR strongly recommend against keeping raccoons for pets. Raccoons are carriers of canine distemper and the parasitic raccoon roundworm, which has been known to infect humans with fatal results. They may also carry rabies although there have been no cases in Indiana for a number of years according to DNR wildlife biologists. Raccoons rarely threaten people with injury, but are not shy about helping themselves to garbage cans, attics, and barns. Indiana residents having difficulty with raccoons can visit the Wildlife Conflicts Information Website at www.wildlifehotline.info.
Our modifications to the natural world and especially the spread of suburbia have been at the expense of many wildlife species -- but not the raccoon. This is one creature we can be certain will be prowling our woods for a very long time to come.
Allen Pursell is the Blue River Program Director for The Nature Conservancy in Indiana.